The last time civilization experienced as much fundamental technological change when compared to this past decade was arguably during the Industrial Revolution, when the factory floor’s then-new efficiencies and associated disruptions took stage. Today, staggering recent developments ranging from the ubiquitous smartphone and its seemingly endless ramifications, to data analytics on a massive scale, for example, have operated in tandem with ever-powerful supercomputers, machine learning and artificial intelligence – against the backdrop of a complex global arena. What, then, of the MBA degree? Does it still hold value in the business world if technology and requisite skill sets are changing so rapidly? While there are outlier opinions, many experts assert that the MBA acutely retains its relevance, in part, precisely because it provides a panoramic, partially immutable and fundamental view of how businesses operate. Whether one uses the term “holistic” or “broad based,” it is the MBA, which – at least within a business context – allows its adherents to comprehend the essential equations of commerce.
“It isn’t so much that everyone needs an MBA, but the more people you have in your company who can understand information cross functionally, the better off [you are],” Susan Forquer Gupta, PhD., MBA director at Monmouth University, says. “People who can get out of their functional silos and understand what [is occurring] across the company in order to make more balanced decisions [are also able] to enact whatever decisions are made higher up [in the leadership], down into their functional unit, because they understand how it impacts the entire firm.”
This may be even be more germane today because companies whose internal divisions once largely operated in silos are often now communicating with each other more frequently, and in more meaningful ways. Reggie J. Caudill, PhD, dean of the Martin Tuchman School of Management, NJIT, and the Panasonic Chair of Sustainability, highlights the importance of “people skills” in the business world, and reveals that employees “are working across what were [once] fairly rigorous disciplines and boundaries. Now, everything is melded together. It is not: Your IT group is over here, your business analytics group is over there; your marketing folks are over here, and accounting and finance folks are over there. That’s not what it is, today.”
Raw technological changes and wide-ranging corporate shifts have also affected higher education itself. Siamack Shojai, PhD, dean of the Cotsakos College of Business at William Paterson University, says, “Technology is changing so fast, and the workforce requirements are also rapidly changing. To move with the new technology, it takes a year or two to adjust your curriculum and introduce new degree programs, and it may give the impression that: ‘We [students] need something faster; we need something quicker. I want to [obtain] a pre-professional training for six months, not spend as much money, get the skills that I need right now, get employed – or do the job that is required of me – and be happy.’”
Shojai explains, “[That] is a kind of short-term view, and it doesn’t have a vision of long-term investments. [With] a master’s program, even though it is expensive, the cost is spread over decades, as opposed to just a year or two. In those pre-professional trainings, most students probably have to go back in a few years and repeat them, again, maybe in a different field; maybe because the technology they mastered is obsolete.”
And while the labor skills landscape may rapidly undulate, an MBA is a life-long credential often listed following the spelling of a person’s name, and it not only underscores the fact that he or she has “MBA competence,” but it additionally demonstrates that the person has the related work ethic, persistence and intelligence required to complete an MBA program in the first place.
Greg Cant, PhD, dean of the Feliciano School of Business at Montclair State University, adds, “There has always been an argument: ‘I can learn lots of things independently; I can learn them by myself.’ It is the whole ‘I can read the book’ idea. And [I do not] in any way [want] to diminish learning that happens through that process. It is a great experience, and within organizations, it is very important. But, why credentials are critical is that there is a standard within an accredited university in this country.
“If we are offering a master’s level degree, and you know it is from Montclair State, you have a sense of what that means in terms of what it took to graduate from us. If a student performs well in our MBA program, you can be certain they have a raft of expertise, competencies and understandings; they are prepared to make a difference in the workplace.”
If the MBA provides a wide-ranging view of business, its enrollees usually ought to have more than merely undergraduate higher education experiences under their belts before pursuing one. Educators, in fact, typically assert that holding jobs for at least a few years provides workers with real-world experiences that can enrich their MBA educations. Besides, some companies offer tuition reimbursement for workers who pursue advanced degrees, although the financial arrangements may vary.
“You see a lot of five-year accounting programs that are also an MBA [degree program],” explains Dr. Barbara-Jayne Lewthwaite, professor of business and president emeritus at Centenary University. “Those are pretty useful because of the requirements for the 150 [credit hours], to sit for the CPA [exam]. But, for most fields, I think it makes sense to get a job after you get your bachelor’s degree, and really get experience that goes beyond an internship. That experience informs what happens in the MBA program, and the reverse.”
Higher education institutions today are notably adapting their courses schedules/times to the business world’s long hours, with classes often held at night and on weekends. And while world-elite business schools may be full time, many MBA programs are offered on a part-time basis.
Providing an example of flexibility, Joyce A. Strawser, PhD., dean of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University, says, “To be more flexible for students, instead of writing 15-week classes, we recently started running seven-week classes. That can be helpful if you have got someone who works in a particular industry where there is a defined ‘busy season,’ they have a lot of travel, or a big project scheduled. They know there is a period of three or four weeks when [attending class] just doesn’t work for them. In the past, they would have had to stay out an entire semester. Now, they can do spring semester, term A, or spring semester, term B.”
Returning to the notion of corporate and technological change, NJIT’s Caudill highlights the “digital strategy” transformations that companies are undergoing, and underscores that “those companies that don’t have a digital strategy – you question whether they are going to survive or not, over the next few years.”
NJIT, he says, has “really gone through a process of restructuring and re-envisioning all of our programs,” including those at the undergraduate level to the MBA program, to even adding a PhD program in business data science, for example. Additionally, NJIT alumni can earn digital “badges” for IBM’s Watson, for instance.
Also underscoring the fluidity shaping the business world is Tim Landers, assistant dean of the Anisfield School of Business, and director of its MBA program at Ramapo College. He says, “I have five [MBA] students who already have master’s degrees; I have one student who has two master’s, I have an MD in the program, and, last May, I graduated a woman who had a PhD in neurobioscience.
“When you look at that dataset, you say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Did they all make earlier [career] mistakes, and make bad decisions?’ And the answer is ‘no.’ It is just a reflection of how dynamic the economy is, the realization that careers are no longer linear; that they follow this circuitous route. In the case of the students I just referenced, the route led them to jobs where they need additional business training, and they are coming back to get their MBAs.”
Montclair State University’s Cant says, “What we see around the corner is not just routine tasks, but a number of tasks being better performed by machines. … Yes, there is some [job] displacement when that happens, and society will have to deal with that displacement, but what [that displacement] reinforces is the importance of advanced learning. “
He concludes, “Some [technology] that we only imagine will start to become real, so that’s why being in higher education is a great industry, because we are going to help people prepare for that change. I would argue that the MBA – business education, generally – has never been more important. In other words, it cements the critical [skills], and not just the base-level skills … it is the critical thinking, the capacity to address complex issues – those are going to be the differentiator of an individual and organization.”
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Weighing the value of a law vs. a master’s degree
By Kathleen Boozang, Dean of Seton Hall Law School
The MBA has been the traditional pathway to success in the business world, and it is still the right choice for many. But increasingly, some people are taking an alternative path and pursuing a J.D., and it’s turning out well for them.
It has long been the case that aspiring CEOs bolster their undergraduate business degrees not with an MBA, but with a J.D., or even pursue a joint MBA-JD. And it’s not unusual to see lawyers make a career change by joining their clients – not just in the legal department, but on the business side. But, what’s different today is the number of students who pursue a J.D. with aspirations from the start to enter the business world, rather than practice law. For some, it is because they aspire to senior positions in compliance, cybersecurity, HR, or risk management, and see the J.D. as a credential with a skill set that will distinguish them.
Others are motivated by the desire to be in the driver’s seat and want the unique skill set developed by a legal education. For example, many law students have graduated into the tax practices of the Big Four; increasingly, they are graduating into the consulting side as well. Others see law school as a path to entrepreneurship, whether in finance, tech, real estate, or entertainment. While a J.D. will not insulate them from having to hire lawyers, they seek to understand for themselves the law’s impact on their choices of how to structure a deal as well as the tax and risk implications of their choices.
Law schools are noticing the trend. Obviously, many law schools have part-time programs that enable young and mid-career professionals to attend law school without leaving their jobs. Seton Hall’s new part-time program, for example, meets eight weekends per semester. Seton Hall Law’s required curriculum includes a financial concepts course taught by business school faculty. Likewise, many law schools have added leadership programs to their curricula.
Law school uniquely trains students to identify and solve problems. These skills cannot be underestimated, and are those often credited by J.D.-trained business executives as the reason their law school degree has been instrumental in their success.
In addition, while many graduate programs have critical thinking, writing and oral training components, these comprise the heart of a legal education.
Ultimately, the pathway to success in the business world takes many forms. Of course, hard work is the common ingredient. But more and more aspiring business leaders are finding that a J.D. is the route to advancement.